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The Pursuit of Knowledge

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: September 26, 2008


The Pursuit of Knowledge an introduction (13/09/08)

When we ask the question, What is evolution?, we want to know, to comprehend, to understand this fantastic something that we think and believe exists, that we already somehow perceive the existence of. We want to raise our consciousness with regard to this process of nature which concerns us. The fact that such a process exists in nature is probably beyond question. Not because we can perceive it directly, but we have perceived ample evidence for its existence, which in fact motivates us to want to understand it fully. It is something indeed remarkable!


But, because the existence of this wonderful process of nature cannot be directly perceived it is spread out over billions of years and is therefore only a concept derived from scattered observations and analyses, we have to admit that the urge to know and understand more, on the basis of the sum total of what is already known, regardless of how closely that knowledge reflects the actual truth of the process, is a mental phenomenon. We have to distinguish our knowledge of the processes that we observe in nature from the material, chemical, organic structures and processes of life themselves. As far as we understand them, these natural processes of physical and chemical and biological principles and laws are not themselves mentally conscious of their origins, their behaviors, and their destinies. And yet birds know when and where and how to build their nests and plants produce flowers and fruits with just the right nutrients for the insects and animals that feed on them. There seems to be an intelligence in nature but not an understanding in the usual sense of knowledge. Certainly the carbon atoms in the sugar molecule and the phosphorous atoms in the enzymes of the nerve synapses do not know what functions they perform in order for the animal organism to achieve its goals. The point is that there are distinctly different levels of organization in the world that we perceive and of which we are part, broadly distinguished as the physical, the vital, and the mental levels of organization. Following Sri Aurobindo, we may refer to these as worlds, or as planes: the physical plane, the vital plane, and the mental plane. This point of view has become increasingly accepted in science and philosophy by such prominent thinkers as Konad Lorenz, Karl Popper, A.N. Whitehead, and so on as we shall discover in more detail as we go forward in this course. According to Sri Aurobindo, we should lose the habit of associating consciousness with mental awareness, and we should think of these three planes as planes of consciousness. That idea too is beginning to be accepted.


This brings us to a distinction probably only possible and natural to a mental being between consciousness and nature, or purusha and prakriti. Only a mental being would distinguish between what it knows and what it is and does. That is perhaps the essence of the mental when it becomes fully evolved and operational in the human being. It perceives, it thinks, it understands things or objects, processes and concepts. However practical and matter-of-fact, or imaginative and creative such mental functioning may be, it thinks of itself as other than the things and objects that it thinks about, even though it too is such a process and part of nature. The mental is a level of the threefold world, a level of consciousness, embedded or grounded in nature, like life and body. This is Sri Aurobindos solution to the mind-body problem. Mental awareness and thought are no more or less levels of consciousness than are emotions, sensations, impulses to action and the expansion and contraction of gasses or inertia and motion. Ontologically there is no duality of mind and body. Nature is threefold: physical consciousness, vital consciousness, mental consciousness, and all are Prakriti. Purusha then is the soul, and it has three fundamental, possible states involved in the lower three worlds, liberated and detached, or identified with the master of being and becoming, Parampurusha, Ishwara-Shakti.


Somewhere along the way this supreme will and spiritual being of which evolutionary nature is the historical embodiment emerged as mind and began to reflect and understand its nature, the natural world. But its idea of separateness from what it thinks and understands it eventually discovers is an illusion; it is deeply grounded in its world and ultimately one with it on the peaks of liberation, where Purusha and Prakriti are re-united. This is the spiritual and ontological or ontotheological explanation of an evolutionary world in which consciousness emerges as physical energy and organization, vital energy and organization, and mental energy and organization. But we still do not know, directly, experientially, adequately the process itself how does it work, how does it happen to be mentally aware of itself, why and to what purpose has mind begun to ask such questions? Why has scientific knowledge at its height become preoccupied with these questions; and why has the master of spiritual knowledge himself made such questions central to his message, his philosophy, and his Yoga?


Traditionally, since Vyasa and Plato, knowledge has been characterized by two distinct but equally challenging and interesting fields of pursuit, or objects of understanding the mind or spirit on the one hand and nature or matter on the other hand. The approaches to the former have been primarily mystical and theological and to the latter scientific and practical. This divergence in the pursuit of knowledge has been a prominent theme in the writings of the philosophers that most interest us. Both streams have been wonderfully energetic and productive throughout our recorded history. And as we approach the study of evolution and the development of a philosophy of evolution, it is necessary that we recognize from the start these two different approaches. One is based on faith and inner experience; the other is based on observation and analysis. The former, subjective approach doesnt tell us anything as yet about the processes of structural evolution and adaptive biochemistry. For knowledge of this tangible realm the scientific approach is needed. The latter, objective approach doesnt tell us anything definite about how the lower three worlds receive their forms and processes from the causal planes, or what the relationship is between the higher duality of Consciousness-Force and the lower prakriti.


The philosophy of Herbert Spenser in the mid-19th Century described the natural world as a mechanistic process of increasing order and complexity determined by an Absolute Force standing outside and unknowable above the worlds of mind, life and body. But this view deliberately and necessarily left the unknowable alone, and set the stage for Darwin to define the process of natural selection. The wheels of materialistic science were set firmly on track to discover how physical energy leads naturally and deterministically to higher and higher levels of organization, culminating in knowledge and values. This train has carried us a long way through fascinating terrains during 150 years of unrelenting pursuit. While, at the same time, the visionaries of higher mind and creative evolution Bergson, Whitehead, Sri Aurobindo especially continued to pursue the Spirit, unwilling to accept that either an Absolute outside the world, or an atomistic quantitative and qualitative analysis of process can ever adequately explain the vast interconnectedness, order and unity of the three worlds, as increasingly grasped and known by intuitive mind. According to Sri Aurobindo these two tracks will necessarily converge at some point. For him, the evolution of a higher consciousness means the possibility of participating more consciously and effectively in the process of evolution itself. Many of his most inspiring writings are specifically about this possibility. Bergson and Whitehead, both felt that the spiritual and material planes of existence are engaged in an active dynamic relationship accessible to intuitive consciousness and productive of ever more perfect expressions of truth, freedom and perfection. Each has given this process a high level of importance.


The aim of philosophy, according to Whitehead, is disclosure which means simply seeing the truth of things. And the difficulty of philosophy, he said, is expressing what is self-evident. The whole effort should be to display the self-evidence of basic truths. Philosophy is kin to poetry, he said. Both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense we term civilization. The assemblage of philosophical ideas moulds our civilization. His idea was that by assembling and expressing the ideas that are most important to us, we create our future. Following this beautiful thought, and also Sri Aurobindos example, if we can assemble and contemplate and express the ideas of evolution in a way that discloses the process itself, we may discover a philosophy of evolution that can help to show the way towards a truer, more unified and enlightened civilization. By applying the method of philosophical assembling, gathering, building

we can create the necessary common understanding of what is most important, what is most valuable, and by doing this we lay the foundations for a civilized society.